In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Poliheuristic Theory of Decision-Making

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Theoretical Advances and Critiques

International Relations Poliheuristic Theory of Decision-Making
Kai Oppermann
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 June 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0238


The Poliheuristic Theory of Decision-Making (PHT) represents a leading theoretical effort in Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA) to transcend the divide between cognitive and rationalist approaches to explaining foreign policy decisions. While the theory has only entered the field in the 1990s and is thus among the more recent additions to the FPA “toolbox,” its basic tenets have already been substantiated through a wide array of qualitative case studies, experimental works, and quantitative analyses. At its core, PHT proposes a two-stage analytic model that combines a heuristics-based decision strategy that ties in with cognitivist perspectives on decision-making and a subsequent stage that corresponds to rationalist expectations. On the first stage of the model, actors apply a range of cognitive shortcuts that run counter to rational choice assumptions and serve to simplify the decision problem by swiftly eliminating unacceptable alternatives from the choice set. On the second stage, actors switch to a more thorough and demanding screening of the remaining alternatives in order to select the option that promises the greatest expected utility. The most important and innovative feature in this attempt at integrating cognitive and rationalist approaches to the study of foreign policy is the transfer of the noncompensatory principle of decision-making to FPA on the first stage of the model. According to this principle, actors do not make trade-offs across different dimensions or attributes of the available options. Rather, decision makers reject alternatives outright that score below a certain cutoff value on what they have identified as the most important dimension of the decision, without considering how these alternatives do in light of other dimensions. What is more, PHT goes on to specify that the noncompensatory dimension in foreign policy decision-making concerns the domestic political repercussions of the available options. In fact, the prefix “poli-” in “poliheuristic” theory refers both to the use of multiple cognitive heuristics on the first stage of the model and to the priority the theory attaches to domestic politics. In other words, the priority of foreign policy decision makers is to avoid major domestic political loss, and they therefore discard any alternatives that they consider unacceptable on this crucial dimension. Building on these constitutive features, important theoretical debates in PHT relate to the operationalization of the noncompensatory principle, its application to different types of political regimes and governments, and the relationship between PHT and other approaches in FPA.

General Overviews

PHT was developed by a group of scholars around Alex Mintz at Texas A&M University in the early 1990s. The aim of the theory is to bring together the cognitive and rationalist traditions in studying foreign policy in order to capture both the process (the “how”) and the outcome (the “why”) of foreign policy decision-making. PHT understands cognitive and rationalist approaches in Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA) as complementary rather than competitive perspectives on how leaders make foreign policy decisions, and it argues that integrating these perspectives in a single, theoretical framework promises to combine the strengths of the two traditions. Specifically, PHT seeks to capitalize both on the advantages often associated with cognitive approaches in providing more descriptively realistic accounts of how foreign policy decisions are made and on the ability of rationalist models to provide deductive explanations of foreign policy choices. To that purpose, PHT models foreign policy as a two-stage sequential process that combines a heuristics-based and an expected utility-maximizing stage of decision-making. Mintz 2004; Mintz 2005; and Redd, et al. 2010 all offer accessible overviews of the theory and are good entry points into PHT. Mintz 2004 and Mintz 2005 also serve as introductions to a special issue of the Journal of Conflict Resolution and a symposium in International Studies Perspectives, respectively. Redd, et al. 2010 is a more recent and comprehensive overview.

  • Mintz, Alex. “How Do Leaders Make Decisions? A Poliheuristic Perspective.” In Special Issue: The Poliheuristic Theory of Foreign Policy Decision Making. Edited by Alex Mintz. Journal of Conflict Resolution 48.1 (2004): 3–13.

    Very concise general statement of PHT. Includes references to key applications of the theory as well as suggestions for further research. Argues that PHT sees domestic politics as the “essence of decision” (p. 7) in foreign policy and has suggestions on how to operationalize the principle of major domestic political loss aversion. Serves as introduction to a special issue on PHT with articles that advance, critique, and apply the theoretical model.

  • Mintz, Alex. “Applied Decision Analysis: Utilizing Poliheuristic Theory to Explain and Predict Foreign Policy and National Security Decisions.” International Studies Perspectives 6.1 (2005): 94–98.

    Useful guide on how to apply PHT. Simple, short, and accessible statement of the main tenets of the theoretical model and step-by-step instructions on conducting a poliheuristic analysis. Should be read in conjunction with more in-depth discussions of the theoretical foundations of PHT. Serves as introduction to a symposium on PHT that is a collection of three empirical applications of the model in different decision contexts.

  • Redd, Steven B., David Brulé, and Alex Mintz. “Poliheuristic Theory and Foreign Policy Analysis.” In The International Studies Encyclopedia. Edited by Robert A. Denemark. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

    The best general overview of PHT. Covers not only the main theoretical features of the model but also reviews the foremost empirical research agendas and methodological approaches in applications of the theory. Has a comprehensive reference list of empirical and theoretical works in PHT. Essential source for undergraduate and postgraduate students in FPA.

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